By Rosie Rogers
Palm Beach Opera’s production of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow last weekend at the Kravis Center made a light and lively, if not technically perfect, closer for the company’s 60th season. Directed by Helena Binder and using Sheldon Harnick’s English lyrics, the show compensated for a few flaws with beautiful sets and an able cast.
Binder introduced many little moments to the staging that fleshed out the characters. An example of the importance of these small touches was in the first act, when Valencienne and Camille glanced back at Baron Zeta before rushing off stage hand in hand. Their giddiness at being together was established, reinforcing their romance. Another was in the second act, when Hanna took Danilo’s sword and danced with it to poke fun at him, showing the comfort they felt with one another despite years of separation.
Individual performances were great throughout, but some issues with ensemble slightly marred the overall effect. Most significantly, the orchestra, conducted by Ward Stare, overpowered the voices at several points throughout the show, beginning in the first scene. This problem affected multiple singers and once even the entire male chorus, which points to too much sound from the pit rather than too little from any one voice.
Elizabeth Sutphen’s Valencienne embodied the grace of an old world, and created a desperate sweetness paired with Duke Kim as Camille de Rossillon. Their duets were completely in sync, and their second ended with a perfectly matched long swell and diminuendo.
Andrew Manea sang Danilo with a rich, clear voice, and in his entrance aria “O Fatherland!” the horn matched his soaring line gracefully. Manea’s ease shifting between tempi and moods made Hanna and Danilo’s sparring joyful and exciting. In their second act duet “Jogging in a One-Horse Gig,” Danilo was drawn in by Hanna’s teasing and joined in with silliness of his own, and at the end of the second act, his anger contrasted wonderfully with Hanna’s delight in her conviction of his love.
Jennifer Rowley’s Hanna Glawari was wonderful from her first dramatic entrance, glittering at the top of the stairs. Unfortunately, this tableau was disrupted by a disconnect with the orchestra’s accompaniment.
Rowley created a Hanna full of self-possession and humor, while maintaining a sweet sentimentality. The chorus of gentlemen joined in with her playfulness well in “Ladies’ Choice,” where Rowley’s humorous gravitas created a scene right out of The Bachelorette.
This broad emotional range shone particularly well in her “Vilja Song,” which was the high point of the production. Rowley’s performance contained a lovely contrast between soft solemnity and passionate fortes. Her effortless extreme softness and impressive dynamic ability communicated Hanna’s loneliness and depth of feeling, earning her well-deserved enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Both iterations of the famous waltz were lovely, with excellent solo cello and violin. In the reprise, Rowley and Manea sang with gentle, unaffected simplicity above the accompanying harps and strings, effectively conveying their genuine love for one another.
Another positive of the show was its sets and lighting. The curtains opened to a gorgeous swirl of a set, designed by Michael Yeargan, which was complemented by dramatic lighting shifts. The colors and intensity of the lights accompanied and eased the transitions from speech to song, creating a heightened, emotional world for the music by turning from white and silver to glowing purple. Other lighting changes introduced scenes; lush pinks represented Camille and Valencienne’s illicit romance, deep purple darkened the set for Danilo’s introspection, and a lighter lavender appeared for Danilo and Hanna’s first dance and tentative reconnection.
The second act’s set was equally lovely. The evening exterior colored in purple, teal, and yellow light made a perfect backdrop for Hanna’s party and the development of the characters’ relationships. The third act set for Maxim’s was the prettiest of all, pink and orange and gold with floral chandeliers, and its celebratory tone matched the cheerful end of the show.
Despite some issues with balance, most of the production was satisfying, and the cast’s comedy chops got a lot of laughs. This Merry Widow was still very merry, thanks to beautiful sets and great singers.